Vale James Birrell LFRAIA

On behalf of the Australian Institute of Architects, National President Professor Helen Lochhead has expressed her sincere condolences to family, friends and colleagues of eminent architect, planner and author James Birrell LFRAIA following his passing at age 90.

James Birrell was an important architect in the post-war era who was strongly influenced by modernist art.

‘Our profession has lost a great architectural champion and talent with the passing of James Birrell,’ Professor Lochhead said.

‘Not only colleagues, but many people in communities around the country will be saddened by this news. James’ work over more than five decades touched so many and was much loved.

‘In 2005 he received the highest honour our profession can bestow with the awarding of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal for his “spirited and distinguished contribution to the discipline of architecture through his built work, through his publications and through his service to the profession and the wider community”.’

‘James has left a legacy that stretches from the nation’s capital to the Top End, and encompasses iconic works notably in Queensland but also overseas.

‘His career spanned both public and private practice and a wealth of projects. James’ work included everything from helping to rebuild from the devastation post-war in Darwin to the iconic Centenary Pool in Brisbane which featured proudly as part of the Australia Pavilion exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale.’

As the Gold Medal jury aptly noted: ‘Birrell’s architecture catalysed a fresh appreciation of the possibilities for designing public and institutional buildings in ways that embraced both innovation in construction and the pragmatic constraints of budget, site and climate.’ They also noted his contribution to learning reflecting on how ‘Over time, his office provided the training ground for a bevy of highly regarded architects.’

While he was a graduate of the University of Melbourne, he spent most of his working life in the tropics. He was the Brisbane City Architect in the 1950s and also worked on iconic university buildings, including Union College, the J.D. Story Administration Building, and the Agriculture and Entomology Building for the University of Queensland; and James Cook University’s Eddie Koiki Mabo Library in Townsville.

James Birrell’s work extended beyond to the built form into the written word. Notably, he was the person who discovered the lost Canberra drawings of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin while investigating the archives of the National Capital Authority in his spare time. He went on to write a biography of Walter Burley Griffin, for which he was awarded the 1961 Sisalkraft Travelling Scholarship. In 1951 he cofounded Architecture and Arts and co-edited the book Building Queensland for the Queensland Chapter of the RAIA, which was published in 1959.

‘James has left an indelible mark and we take this time to reflect on and celebrate his many achievements from a life rich in service to the profession and to the public,’ Professor Lochhead said.

A memorial service commemorating his extraordinary life and achievements will be held in Mooloolaba, Queensland at 12pm Thursday 24 October. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP via Eventbrite.

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Australian Institute of Architects
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